Organizational Learning

Organizational Learning


a Sustainable Competitive
a Sustainable Competitive
Advantage
Advantage
Angela IONIŢĂ
The Romanian Academy, Research Institute for Artificial Intellig The Romanian Academy, Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, ence,
Bucharest, Romania Bucharest, Romania
Content
1. Introduction
2. Knowledge Management and Organizational
Learning
3. The four-cell model of Learning Organizations
4. Conclusions and Challenges
5. References
In order to remain competitive, an organization needs to continuously develop new
knowledge. The literature on organizational learning and capabilities is extremely
diversified, both in its origins and aims. Without claiming to be exhaustive and
original, this paper focuses on the literature produced by different fields of research.
The aim is to highlight the contribution of these different approaches and the basic
questions linked to the complex notions of Organizational Learning and Human
Resources Management and sustainable competitive advantage, through a survey of
the scanned of part of dedicated literature. According to (Mehra, K., 2001) the basic
entity of knowledge generation is the individual. In this respect, knowledge resides as
human capital or a knowledge pool.
The notion of Organizational Learning is to be found in different studies, mostly in the
evolutionary theory (Weienstein, O. and Nicole Azoulay, 1999). The dedicated
literature can be divided into two large categories:
• the first one, that has been developed by consultants, is prescriptive, practice-
oriented;
• the second one, produced by researchers is “non-prescriptive and neutral with
respect to its definition of learning – that is, open to the view that learning may be
good or bad, linked or not linked, to effective action or desirable outcomes” (Argyris,
C. & Schon, 1996).
Introduction
1. What is knowledge management?
2. What is Organizational Learning?
3. What is a Learning Organization?
4. Areas of Consensus
5. Capabilities and competitivity
2. Knowledge Management and
Organizational Learning
What is knowledge management?
According to (Bender and Fish, 2000; Groenewald, T.) knowledge management (KM) is a
way of working. Laszlo and Laszlo (2002), McElroy (2000), and Senge (1990) differentiate
between two generations of KM:
- the first generation focused on information indexing, retrieval and dissemination,
usually through technology;
- the second generation is about sustainable creation, transfer and dissemination of
corporate knowledge.
The first generation concentrated on standards and benchmarks (imitation), the second
promotes education and innovation.
2. Knowledge Management and
Organizational Learning
What is Organizational Learning?
“Organizational Learning” (OL) is an area of knowledge within organizational theory that
studies models and theories about the way an organization learns and adapts. In organizational
development (OD), learning is a characteristic of an adaptive organization, i.e., an organization
that is able to sense changes in signals from its environment (both internal and external) and
adapt accordingly. OD specialists endeavor to assist their clients to learn from experience and
incorporate the learning as feedback into the planning process.
Argyris (1977) defines OL as the process of "detection and correction of errors." In his view
organizations learn through individuals acting as agents for them: "The individuals' learning
activities, in turn, are facilitated or inhibited by an ecological system of factors that may be called
an organizational learning system".
Huber (1991) considers four constructs as integrally linked to organizational learning:
knowledge acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation, and
organizational memory. In his opinion, learning need not be conscious or intentional. Further,
learning does not always increase the learner's effectiveness, or even potential effectiveness.
Moreover, learning need not result in observable changes in behaviour. Taking a behavioral
perspective, Huber (1991) notes: An entity learns if, through its processing of information, the
range of its potential behaviours is changed.
Weick (1991) argues that the defining property of learning is the combination of same stimulus
and different responses, however it is rare in organizations meaning either organizations don't
learn or that organizations learn but in nontraditional ways.
2. 2. Knowledge Management and Knowledge Management and
Organizational Learning Organizational Learning
What is a Learning Organization?
Senge (1990) defines the Learning Organization (LO) as the organization "in which you
cannot not learn because learning is so insinuated into the fabric of life." Also, Senge
(1990) defines Learning Organization as "a group of people continually enhancing their
capacity to create what they want to create." The LO is also defined as an "Organization
with an ingrained philosophy for anticipating, reacting and responding to change,
complexity and uncertainty." The concept of LO is increasingly relevant given the
increasing complexity and uncertainty of the organizational environment. As Senge
(1990) remarks: "The rate at which organizations learn may become the only
sustainable source of competitive advantage."
McGill et al. (1992) define the LO as "a company that can respond to new information
by altering the very "programming" by which information is processed and evaluated."
Ang & Joseph (1996) contrast OL and LO in terms of process versus structure. McGill et
al. (1992) do not distinguish between LO and OL, they defining Organizational Learning
as the ability of an organization to gain insight and understanding from experience
through experimentation, observation, analysis, and a willingness to examine both
successes and failures.
Literature on organizational learning is very rich, fragmented.
2. Knowledge Management and
Organizational Learning
“The relevance of OL term is gaining at this moment and that it is a factor accounting for the
different forms of organizational change. Thus, it is a notion that can be applied to many
disciplines, since it can combine organizational phenomena” (Ubeda Garcia Mercedes et. all.):
• Change. In terms of change, the aim of OL is located at the development of structures
and systems so that organizations can learn to generate and understand environmental
changes (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Fiol & Lyles, 1985).
• Technology. As regards technology, OL is implemented in the technological changes
affecting the relationship between firms and their environment. This is a notion than has been
recently introduced by industrial economists with the aim of trying to explain technological
innovation as a process of organizational learning (Le Bas, 1993).
• Dynamism. OL corresponds to a dynamic organization, insofar as it is integrated into
organizations at different analysis levels: individuals, groups and organizations as such.
• Global firm. Finally, the notion of OL can also be applied to the process of firm
internationalisation, since, through this process, new mental patterns, new behaviours and new
organizational capabilities can be learnt.
2. Knowledge Management
and Organizational Learning
Areas of Consensus
In (Ubeda Garcia Mercedes et al.) has been established four consensus areas:
1. The first consensus area has to do with the combination of organizational and individual learning,
which appear as different but indissolubly linked phenomena. At present, there seems to exist a convergence
between two schools. The first group of authors focused their attention in the way individual learning
processes were reflected inside the context of the organization. The results of these learning processes are
translated into short-term organizational actions which come as a consequence of responses to the
environment, whose interpretation remains stored in the individuals' memories and which influence future
actions. The second group of authors (Argyris, C. & Schon, D., 1978) still focusing on individual learning as the
main engine driving organizational learning, distinguishes those two phenomena and their combination more
clearly. The results of individual learning are stored in the organizational memory and codified in individual
images as well as in shared representations (theory in use); even, some behaviours and values are stored in
the organizational memory and remain, even though individuals come and go, in other words, organizational
learning is based on past knowledge, in the organizational memory. That memory depends on the institutional
mechanisms (policies, strategies, procedures, etc.) used to retain knowledge (Stata, 1989).
2. The role of memory. At the organizational level, Argyris & Schon (1978) introduce the notion of shared
mental patterns; the organization responds to problems through the theories used by its members; thus,
shared mental patterns depend on individual mental patterns, since as Kim 1993) points out, the importance of
individual learning for organizational learning is obvious and subtle.
3. The third consensus area, linked to the preceding one, is the existence of different learning levels and
styles (Fiol & Lyles, 1985; Miner & Mezias, 1996).
4. The last consensus area consists in the consideration of learning processes as located inside the
table of relationships between entities and environments. There seems to be a certain unanimity to
consider that environments being too placid or static, too turbulent or dynamic, or even too simple or too
complex, are not favourable to stimulate learning, which also needs change and stability conditions in
relationships between firms and their environment (Ingman, 1994).
2. Knowledge Management
and Organizational Learning
Capabilities and competitivity
Christensen (1996) defines capabilities as a “lower order functional or inter-functional technical capacity
to mobilize resources for productive activities” and competence as a “higher-order management
capacity of the firm to mobilize, harmonize and develop resources and capabilities to create value and
competitive advantage”.
The scope given to the notion of a firm’s capabilities can be more or less extensive. Chandler (1990)
offers a broader definition: “The organizational capabilities were the collective physical facilities and
human skills as they were organized within the enterprise. These included the physical facilities in each
of the many operating units - the factories, offices, laboratories - and the skills of the employees
working in such units”. Some others, like Leonard-Barton (1992, 1995), go so far as to identify, in what
is probably the widest approach, four dimensions in firms’ capabilities:
(1) “Employee knowledge and skills”;
(2) “Physical technical systems” (equipment, software, data base, expert systems… );
(3) “managerial systems” (organizational structure; regulations, routines, decision procedures;
incentive systems);
(4) “Values and norms” (“systems of castes and status, rituals of behavior and passionate beliefs”).
Similarly, Coombs & Hull (1998) link a firm’s capabilities to three kinds of elements: namely “technology
as hardware”, that is to say the material and technical support; the knowledge base (“shared mental
framework of fundamental mental framework”); ”the collection of routines which are carried out in the
firm in order for it to conduct its regular business”.
These reflexions essentially emphasize the complex nature of capabilities’ determinants and raise the
question of the various elements in which these capabilities are embedded.
2. Knowledge Management and
Organizational Learning
3. The four-cell model of Learning Organizations
There is no current consensus regarding
a model for organizational learning. In
the literature several models have been
proposed to facilitate understanding of
organizational learning and are
mentioned more aspects of the elements
required to build and sustain an
organization. Howard Rowley (2002)
established a core elements outlined in a
four-cell model having a few basic
attributes and dynamics:
• each cell must achieve
tangible outcomes;
• mutual dependencies and
tensions exist between cells;
Feedback &
Learning
Goals &
Values
Motivation &
Empowerment
Teamwork &
Collaboration
• circular arrows indicate that cells must perform consistently to sustain
momentum;
• the model can be scaled to any level; functional department or entire
branch, a project or program, a total organization or linked/virtual organizations.
Source: Howard Rowley, 2002
Making a synthesis of the definitions from the literature, a Learning
Organization is one in which people at all levels, individually and
collectively, are increasing their capacity to produce results they really
care about (Richard Karash, 1994-2001). Peter Senge (1990) defined a
learning organization as dynamical systems that are in a state of
continuous adaptation and improvement. That is, organisations that are
adapted for maximum organizational learning and that build feedback
loops deliberately to maximize their own learning. This is accomplish by
paying attention to three key areas:
• Shared vision and a common sense of purpose – able to clearly
articulated the vision;
• Common language for communicating information within the
organization – productive conversation to make results happen;
• Understanding of organizational dynamics and complex business
processes – tools and thinking to management the complexities involved.
4. Conclusions and Challenges
Rapid Change: In a Learning Organization, change is seen as an
opportunity to learn through problem solving.
Shifting Focus: A Learning Organization can ensure that there is a
strategic alignment between customer needs, organizational goals,
individual learning, and resource allocations.
Eroding Knowledge Bases: A Learning Organization fosters information
exchange and captures expertise from all levels of personnel. And,
technology is leverage to support information exchange.
Limited Training Resources: A Learning Organization can make use of
alternative strategies that integrate learning into the workplace. These
alternative methods cost less and are effective.
Evolving Roles of Supervisors: In a Learning Organization, managers
serve as teachers and each individual is empowered to be responsible for
his or her own learning.
4. Conclusions and Challenges

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